General Manager, UK & Ireland, Gilead Sciences Ltd
For patients with specific blood cancers, CAR-T therapy harnesses their immune system by re-engineering their own white blood cells.
Our immune system is there to pinpoint cancer cells and kill them. It has the ability to do this all the time
The trouble is, cancer cells can go under the radar of the immune system.
“Right now, somewhere in our bodies, a cell is dividing with incorrect genetic code,” says Hilary Hutton-Squire, General Manager of Gilead Sciences UK & Ireland, a research-based biopharmaceutical company.
“Our immune system is programmed to recognise these mutated cells and destroy them before they cause a problem. Cancer can occur when these genetic mutations either go unrecognised by our immune system, or because our immune system has been overwhelmed by mutated cells in some way.”
White blood cells that are better able to fight cancer
Cancer treatment has evolved tremendously over the decades, and more recently, there have been two significant medical developments: targeted therapies, which target specific cancer cell markers; and immunotherapy, which helps the immune system find and destroy cancer cells.
And now, thanks to close collaboration between industry and the NHS, a therapy called CAR-T — or chimeric antigen receptor T-cell — is taking treatment a step further by harnessing the immune system to fight cancer through the genetic re-engineering of the patient’s own white blood cells.
This therapy is – currently – used to treat a relatively small group of patients with specific aggressive blood cancers who have not responded to two or more previous therapies and have little or no treatment options available to them.
“In the case of CAR-T, white blood cells are extracted from the patient and genetically re-engineered, a process that takes a number of weeks,” says Hutton-Squire. “These white blood cells are effectively ‘taught’ how to find the cancer that was evading the patients’ immune system and fight it. The re-engineered cells are injected back into the patient to kill the specific cancer cells.”
CAR-T is a one-off therapy, which can benefit certain patients with aggressive blood cancer where previously their prognosis was extremely poor, however, there are side-effects to CAR-T which can be severe and have to be carefully managed by the treating clinicians.
This type of cell therapy approach might be effective in treating a range of different stage cancers in future. “We believe that using immune cells to destroy cancer cells could have a broader application,” says Hutton-Squire. “That makes it a core part of cancer research going forward.”
Zinc job bag number: YES/UK/19-08/CI/1538
Date of preparation: August 2019
Information from Kite – a Gilead company distributed by Mediaplanet